U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell gives a speech to the United Nations that is both highly consequential and full of fabrications on February 5, 2003. Using talking points that many within his own government had told him were either misleading or outright lies, Powell outlined the United States’ case that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, making the argument for the invasion that would happen the following month. Powell has called it a “blot” on his record.
President George W. Bush‘s administration contained several prominent officials, such as Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld, who had advocated for the First Gulf War and were known proponents of a second invasion of Iraq. Soon after a group of mostly-Saudi terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, a movement began within the Bush administration to remove Iraq’s leader, the dictator Saddam Hussein, from power, on the grounds that he was connected to the attacks. Powell was not among this clique—according to him, he warned Bush in August of 2002 that removing Hussein might be easy but turning Iraq into a stable, friendly democracy would not be. At Powell’s urging, Bush took his case to the United Nations, leading to the decision to send inspectors into the country to search for “weapons of mass destruction.” The inspectors found no proof of such weapons, but Congress nonetheless authorized Bush to use military force against Iraq in October of 2002. According to Powell, Bush had already decided to do so before sending Powell to the UN.
Powell claimed he was delivering “facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence” as he told the UN that Iraq possessed biological weapons. He knew this to be a lie. He had reportedly received the text of the speech four days before it was to be given, during which time the State Department’s intelligence bureau had raised a host of red flags. Powell’s employees had identified many key claims as “weak,” “not credible,” or “highly questionable.” Among these questionable assertions were the claims that Iraqi officials had ordered biological weapons removed ahead of UN searches, that Iraq’s conventional missiles appeared fit to carry chemical weapons, and that Hussein possessed mobile labs capable of producing anthrax and other toxins. The speech cherry-picked testimony from various Iraqi sources, omitting that Hussein’s son-in-law, who had been in charge of Iraq’s WMD program before defecting in 1995, had testified that Iraq had destroyed all of its chemical weapons after the First Gulf War.
Powell’s speech may not have launched the invasion, which began in March, but it justified it to the American public and provided cover for the U.S. with the international community. Though the UN maintained that the invasion of Iraq was illegal, the Bush administration and allies like Tony Blair’s government in Britain felt that Powell’s speech had done the job. In addition to selling the war on false pretenses, it also had a disastrous unintended consequence: Powell made 21 mentions of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, calling him the link between Hussein and the Al-Qaeda network that had plotted the 9/11 attacks. In reality, the term Al-Qaeda had not been used by any of its alleged members until after 9/11; it was, in fact, a loose network of likeminded radicals that only congealed into a distinct organization after the United States targeted it. Likewise, Zarqawi had had only fleeting contact with the network before Powell’s speech. After the speech, however, Zarqawi began to amass a stronger following within Iraq, where he became a notorious insurgent leader and greatly escalated the guerrilla war against the United States into an all-out sectarian conflict.